Scorpions Can Adjust Their Venom for Changing Threats

There is interesting new research that indicates that there are some scorpions who can adjust their venom depending on the threat at hand. This could take place during the hurting of its very next meal or during times when it is merely protecting itself from predators. This study is marking the very first time that researchers have uncovered the capability of a creature to fine tune the toxicity of their venom based on their needs.

Venoms for Each of the Scorpion’s Needs 

In order to survive, a scorpion must be able to locate and capture food (which are typically insects), but it also needs to fight off predators such as smaller mammals. The great thing for these arachnids is that their venom is able to conduct double-duty for these critical tasks. However, as Jamie Seymour from James Cook University has pointed out, these scorpions create venom that is specific for attackers and another type that is specific for food. And the fact is that scorpion venom is a very complicated mix of various toxins during any situation.

“Scorpions contain three separate subtypes of toxins that are effective against mammals only, insects only, and both,” claimed Seymour in a recent comment. “The question was whether the ‘recipe’ for this cocktail is fixed or can adapt in response to different environments and predator–prey interactions.”

Recruiting the Right Team for the Study

As they were preparing this study, Seymour assumed repeated exposures to would be attackers and predators ought to cause scorpions to generate larger quantities of their defensive venom as opposed to their offensive venom. In order to test this belief, he put together a crack team of chemists, ecologists, physiologists, along with a hefty group of Australian rainforest scorpions. Also referred to as Hormurus waigiensis, the two to three inch scorpions are very well acclimated to those rainforests of Queensland and also those in New South Wales.

For this evaluation, Seymour’s team exposed these scorpions to one of three specific conditions: exposed to live crickets (prey), exposed to dead crickets (control), and exposed to a taxidermied stuffed mouse (who simulated an attacker). After about six weeks, these scorpions that had been exposed to the simulated attacker created a much different venom than the ones who were not exposed to the stuffed rodent.

“Exposure to a simulated predator appeared to decrease relative production of toxins that would work on insects, while generally increasing the production of a section of the venom profile with activity towards mammalian, e.g. mouse, cells,” commented the ecologist Tobin Northfield who took part in the study.

These results do not necessarily mean that these scorpions can instantly alter the chemistry of venom on the fly. Instead, it simply means that scorpions that are subjected to constant threats from attackers over a prolonged period of time, such as six weeks in this case, they are more than capable of tweaking their venom chemistry as a response. “Our findings provide, to our knowledge, the first evidence for adaptive plasticity in venom composition,” concluded these scientists taking part in this new study.

This is pretty awesome because it is telling us that scorpions possess a natural toxin regulator which serves to re-route internal elements in order to increase or reduce venom production based on need. As they look into the future, researchers should be able to detect similar abilities in other scorpion species, and they should study exactly how they are doing it. As far as using this knowledge for real world applications, the future evaluations might be used enhance the quality of anti-venoms.